Will We Pay for High-Quality Information?

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, says that in order to come up with successful startup ideas you need to “live in the future and build what seems interesting.”  He notes that successful founders usually operate on the fringe of what is believed to be possible, and then fill in gaps when they notice something missing. Their companies then ride large and thematic “waves” as this new capability moves through the market.

The makings of a wave

I can feel a wave coming. Much in the same way that, afloat in the middle of the ocean, you can feel the heave and roll of the water long before the wave materializes, so too in the market can you feel the beginnings of a trend. I think that in the coming years we will see a major shift in the way that companies distribute information to consumers. The current obsession with clicks, views, and virality, while demonstrating businesses’ unprecedented access to consumers, doesn’t always translate to value-add for either party. I’m expecting a large portion of the online content market to shift away from clickbait, “listicles”, and other forms of faux-content, and instead focus on associating their brand with the highest quality content that provides the most value to consumers.

The age of clickbait

Clickbait is nothing new–the debates and issues surrounding content created solely to boost circulation have existed since the rise of newspapers–but the overwhelming increase in the volume of clickbait has created new problems. The growth has been alarming; the amount of content available to consumers is expected to increase 600% by 2020. Headlines like “10 Places You Absolutely Have to Visit Before You Die”, “This New Innovation Will Put Your Dentist Out of Business”, and “Is Your Boss Intoxicated by Power?” have invaded every corner of the web. The poster-child of this explosive growth, BuzzFeed, boasts an average of 7 billion average monthly content views. Upworthy topped 200 million video views on Facebook with a 9 person team. Companies keep generating this type of content, and people keep clicking on it. And we’re expected to wade through this sea of garbage in pursuit of high quality content? And we’re expecting the sea to grow to 6 times its current size in the coming years? I’ve seen this episode of Dirty Jobs before.

Empty calories

The best comparison I’ve come up with for this absurd growth in mediocre content? Fast food. The comparison was inspired when I heard Tim Ferris talking about the idea of a “low-information diet“. While Tim’s concept of a low-information diet revolves around selective ignorance and time management, I think that the idea can be expanded in a number of ways. If I’m going on a diet, I don’t just need to be conscious of the quantity of what I’m consuming but also the quality. Content should be healthy, stimulating, well-balanced, promote growth, and give lasting energy rather than a quick sugar rush. If we take those as benchmark criteria, it’s easy to see that a significant portion of online content would be considered “fast food information”.

It’s a fun game to play: how many similarities can you find between the early explosion of fast food and the current inundation of low-quality online content? They’re both quick and cheap to produce. They’re both convenient for consumers. They’re both addictive. Knowledge of their negative health implications spreads slowly. It’s an intimidating list of similarities.

Kale for the internet

However, this troublesome situation creates opportunities, and we can look to the history of the food industry for a few hints. Remember that our goal is to operate on the fringes of what is believed to be possible, and fill in the gaps when we find something missing. In the glory days of fast food, the idea of an entire grocery store committed to healthy and organic food would have seemed absurd. Making that idea profitable? Impossible. A service delivering fresh produce to your doorstep? Ludicrous. Bottled drinks and smoothie shops based solely on a leafy green vegetable? Laughable (I still find this one pretty comical).

So what about a business that provides you with much less information than you currently digest, but it’s all “healthy”? The service filters your news and social media sites and only shows you what’s timely, pertinent, stimulating, etc. Or what about a product that tracks your learning and engagement, ensuring that the knowledge you receive is a continuation of prior education instead of a time waste? Or an advertising company that could ensure with absolute certainty that your interactions with your customers were always personal and value-add? The past few years have seen marketing for low-quality information reduced to a science; we have yet to see a similar trend in high-quality information. Businesses will need to learn how to package these ideas, how to make consumers comfortable with the idea of paying for curated content. The negatives aspects of “content shock” need to be understood, the value of alternatives needs to be demonstrated, and trust will have to be built in the new market.

How much longer do we have to wait?

Consumer sentiment takes a while to reach critical mass. But once it does, it can swing suddenly and violently. A shift of the kind that I’m suggesting will certainly take time, but it might not be as far off as we think. The growing prevalence of ideas like a “low-information diet”, “content fatigue”, and “content shock” point to an increasing understanding of the problem. And people seem to be working on solutions. The clever folks over at Chartbeat (an advertising technology company working to “build the attention economy”) observed in a recent study that “55% of people spend fewer than 15 seconds on a page.” Their rallying cry is “Your audience’s attention is worth more than their clicks” and they’ve partnered with businesses like The New York Times, Forbes, Time, Bleacher Report, The Financial Times, General Mills, and Disney. I can’t speak to their effectiveness, but they’re an example of one the first movers in a space I’m expecting to grow rapidly in the coming years.

The technology still has to make significant advancements. A few players have entered the space but it’s too early to determine their success. It remains to be seen how much customers will be willing to pay (both businesses and individuals) for these types of products and services. But if you’re paying attention, you can feel the heave and roll of the water.

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